I've Gotta Be Me By Hating You
Study: Hostility towards groups helps form identity
By Neil Sherman
MONDAY, Aug. 20 (HealthScoutNews) -- Who you are may be defined in part by who you hate, new research suggests.
Studies have shown that people create identity and self-esteem by associating with --or at least relating to -- groups or organizations they view as positive. But your feelings about a group or organization you reject may be equally important for how you view yourself, researchers say.
"What we were interested in was how negative perceptions of an organization or a company can cause people to work against that company -- not buy their product, boycott them, not work for them, or speak out against them," says Kimberly Elsbach, formerly a professor at Emory University and now with the University of California at Davis. "And there's a theory -- social identification -- that says that the groups or companies or friendship groups we associate with help us to identify who we are.
"So if I say I'm against the National Rifle Association [NRA], then that defines me as a non-member and that identifies me as an individual," Elsbach explains. "So we used how people felt about the NRA to look at how people identify themselves by who they 'disidentify' with."
Elsbach and her colleagues at Emory conducted three focus groups in metropolitan Atlanta with a total of 27 people -- 11 men and 16 women -- "people who said they saw themselves as separate or disconnected from the NRA," she says. "And we choose the NRA, because we wanted to make sure that we used a group that we knew people would 'disidentify' with, and that could only happen with an organization that espoused a well-known ideology."
She says her findings could apply to other groups -- the American Civil Liberties Union, for example -- from all across the political spectrum.
The survey found the strongest negative feelings among the people who knew the least about the NRA.
"People who have limited experience and exposure to the organization, those who really don't have any personal experience of the organization, or those who felt that the organization would hurt their reputation with their friends, and people who feel like the values of the organization conflict with their own, are most likely to 'disidentify' with the NRA," Elsbach says.
"So they saw the NRA as a bunch of rednecks toting guns and they didn't know anyone who belonged and they had no personal experience of the organization," she says. "In fact, these people tended to have a very narrowly defined, stereotypical view of the organization."
What was also interesting about the finding, she adds, was that "people did not necessarily have to have some personal negative experience with an organization to 'disidentify.'"
"In fact, it was the very opposite -- they had no experience and that suggests that the stereotype is the most important predictor of 'disidentification,'" she says.
Those who knew something about the NRA had less strident feelings, Elsbach says. "They may have opposed the NRA's views and they didn't agree personally, nevertheless they did not 'disidentify' because they had a more complex understanding."
This mirrors life in a way, she notes. "The same process goes on in adolescence with the groups of friends you make and the people you say you don't like, and that clearly goes on into adulthood."
'Disidentification' often leads to action, Elsbach says. "Some people said they volunteered for groups against the NRA or boycotted companies that supported the NRA, or they spoke out publicly," she says.
The findings, which were verified using a mail survey of more than 400 people, were published in the August issue of Organization Science.
The NRA declined to comment on the article.
The findings are "relevant but only one part of a very complex, ongoing process," says Gershen Kaufman, a psychology professor at Michigan State University. "Identity is in flux from birth until death. It is who I was, who I am, who I will be -- and it's a historical concept, because it transcends past and future and links both to a present self."
Kaufman says each person is different and "some people respond more to positive identification while some respond more to negative identification, and some balance the whole process out between the two. And identity grows through defining who we are and who are not, who we are like and who we are different from."
While the findings are interesting, are there any practical applications?
"We think that organizations and companies are in a very competitive environment," Elsbach says. "They want their customers not to shop at their competitors. Getting them to 'disidentify' could be very powerful."
Or we may want to change social attitudes, she adds. "There's a large area of advertising called social marketing -- such as the efforts to label tobacco companies as uncaring. Understanding 'disidentification' could be very helpful."
What To Do
For more on "disidentification," visit Washington State University. And for more on the development of identity, check out Metaself.
You can also form your own opinion about the National Rifle Association.
SOURCES: Interviews with Kimberly Elsbach, Ph.D., associate professor of management, University of California, Davis; Gershen Kaufman, Ph.D., professor of psychology, Michigan State University, East Lansing; August 2001 Organization Science
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Last updated 8/20/2001.
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